I

Throughout the galaxy, it was widely believed that one could not find anything ugly about the planet Alderaan. From its pristine, snow-capped peaks to its vibrant grasslands and spotless, white beaches, every centimeter of its surface radiated beauty. The developed areas of the planet were clean and orderly, designed to flow around the natural topography whenever possible. This thoughtful technique suggested harmony with nature, instead of dominance over it. In every city, the tallest buildings were finished with a soft, eggshell-white color that complemented the sky regardless of the weather. Even the man-made institutions were pleasant and respectable, unlike their corrupt and scandal-ridden counterparts in other star systems. Alderaan's constitutional monarchy had a sterling reputation, and proudly contributed to the planet's reputation as a veritable utopia.

Sadly, no planet inhabited by sentient life could avoid violence forever. Although Alderaanian culture overwhelmingly opposed the idea of war, it was also committed to the Galactic Republic, and was therefore called to aid whenever the Republic came under attack. When the Mandalorians, a people widely perceived as aggressive and merciless, declared war on the Republic, Alderaan mobilized its finest soldiers, and sent them off to fight. Both sides suffered enormous casualties, but in the end, the Republic prevailed. The Mandalorian Alliance was brought to its knees, and Mandalore's leaders were summoned to Alderaan to sign the treaty that would bring a formal end to the war. The beautiful scenery did nothing to relieve the tension as the Mandalorian government signed a document admitting fault for the entire war, and agreeing to pay harsh reparations to the victorious Republic. Twenty years had passed since the Treaty of Aldera was signed, and the Republic had raised a new generation, leaning heavily on the diplomatic and covert skills of the Jedi Knights to keep the peace. But the Mandalorian people had raised a new generation of their own, and their young were brought up to view the galaxy in a different light. In Alderaan's academic circles, historians whispered that it was not a question of if another war would erupt, but when.

The Republic's latest effort to stave off war came in the form of a Consular-class space cruiser, which dropped out of hyperspace just beyond the orbit of Alderaan's moon. It was a relatively small ship, measuring 115 meters from bow to stern, with three powerful engines oriented horizontally. Its hull was painted amaranth red, a tradition for diplomatic vessels of the Republic, while some of its more frequently replaced maintenance panels were a plain white color. Because its mission had been so hastily cobbled together, the ship carried only a skeleton crew: a captain and a pilot, chosen not for their merit but for their proximity to their commanding officer when his orders were received.

The cruiser had only two passengers, both human males. They were members of the Jedi Order, and like many of their religion, they had names that sounded strange and eccentric to the less-traveled denizens of the galaxy. The older man, Qui-Gon Jinn, was in his early fifties, with a trimmed beard and long, brown hair which he wore in a topknot. His hair was beginning to show traces of gray, and his face had a few wrinkles in the usual places, but he still had the posture of a younger man. The way he carried himself left no question that in spite of his age, he was still in fighting shape. The younger man, Obi-Wan Kenobi, was 35 years old, with a beard almost identical to his counterpart. He had auburn hair, which was combed back over his ears and cut just above shoulder length. Like Qui-Gon, he was fair-skinned, and had light blue eyes, but he did not share the stern, world-weary gaze of the older man.

In accordance with their teachings, both Jedi Knights wore attire that gave them a dignified appearance, without drawing unnecessary attention: bib-front shirts with long sleeves and Mandarin collars, fitted pants, and leather boots that ended below the knee. The only accessories they wore were their lightsabers, which hung from the right side of each man's belt. While there were minor cosmetic differences between the two, both weapons were accented with elegant black trim, and had a chrome-like finish that gleamed when it caught the light.

Fortunately for the Jedi, most of their adversaries knew that a lightsaber blade could cut through almost anything—and they did not know that a trained Jedi Knight would not ignite his blade unless he had no other choice. Because this general ignorance worked in their favor, the Jedi made no effort to correct it. In their view, the public's uneasiness at the sight of a lightsaber was a fair price to pay to achieve victory without fighting. This was precisely what Qui-Gon hoped for as he meditated in his cabin: victory without fighting. He inhaled slowly through his nose, and wondered whether Obi-Wan had the same goal in mind. Although Obi-Wan was mature for his age, he still clung to a fragment of the reckless nature that had defined his youth. As apprentice to the legendary Master Yoda, he had learned to control his excitable personality, but ever since he completed his trials and earned the rank of Jedi Knight, he had gradually begun slipping back into his old ways. Qui-Gon reminded himself to be patient, to continue acting as a mentor as long as Obi-Wan was with him. They had already completed many assignments together, and developed a brotherly bond uncommon to those with so many years between them. Qui-Gon knew that bond allowed him to be direct, and offer counsel that would be ignored if it came from a less familiar source.

As Qui-Gon meditated on the mission ahead, and how to best guide his younger partner through it, he felt a quiet ripple in the Force. The sensation told him what his eyes and ears had yet to perceive: Obi-Wan was drawing near. Qui-Gon gently lifted himself out of his deeply relaxed state in preparation for Obi-Wan's arrival. The presence of the Force receded from his mind like an ebbing tide, slightly more distant than before, but never gone completely. He took one more deep breath, and slowly opened his eyes as his cabin door slid open with a quiet hissing sound. Light from the corridor spilled into the darkened room, obscured only by the silhouette of a winded Obi-Wan Kenobi.

"Master Qui-Gon," Obi-Wan announced excitedly, "We've reached the Alderaan system."

Obi-Wan placed his hand against the door frame as he spoke, taking care to make the motion appear casual, but Qui-Gon knew him too well. He knew Obi-Wan just spent the entire hyperspace journey sitting anxiously at the navigator's station, staring at the computer for so long that his short jog down the corridor had caused his heart rate to surge. Without rising from his cross-legged position, Qui-Gon gestured at the control panel next to the door. The Force brushed against the dimmer switch, bringing the lights on gradually. He motioned for his friend to enter, and sit on the cushioned stool across from him. Obi-Wan's shoulders slumped, and he shot Qui-Gon a skeptical look as he realized he was in for a lecture, but he obeyed. Qui-Gon allowed the silence to linger for a moment, knowing it would compel Obi-Wan to focus, and then he spoke.

"Why have we come all this way, Obi-Wan?" he asked softly. Obi-Wan's eyes flickered to one side, then the other, as if he was waiting for an overdue punch line.

"To escort the Royal Family to Coruscant," he replied, his tone suggesting the answer was obvious.

Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow. "And why must we escort the Royal Family to Coruscant?" he asked. Obi-Wan almost rolled his eyes, but held back out of respect.

"We've all heard the rumors," he said. "The Mandalorians want another war. It's the most foolish idea I've ever heard, but that didn't stop them last time."

At this, Qui-Gon sighed. "They're not just rumors, Obi-Wan." He saw the inquisitive look on his companion's face, and lowered his voice to impress the seriousness of the matter. "Senator Palpatine spoke to me before we left. The Mandalorians have recalled their ambassadors. Many of their former allies have done the same."

"Then they are fools!" Obi-Wan scoffed.

"The Mandalorians are many things," Qui-Gon warned, "but they are not fools. You didn't fight in the last war—"

"I would have, if Master Yoda had let me!" Obi-Wan interrupted. "I was almost old enough—"

Qui-Gon held up his hand, and Obi-Wan fell silent. "I did," he said, with a mournful look in his eyes. "Believe me, it is not an experience anyone would wish to repeat."

Obi-Wan took a moment to collect himself before he spoke. "Then why do they appear so committed to repeating it?" he asked.

Qui-Gon stood, and smoothed out his clothing with his hands. He motioned for Obi-Wan to follow him, and together, they made their way to the cockpit. The pilot and his captain glanced over their shoulders out of instinct, then immediately returned their instruments. The Jedi Knights looked out of the viewport at their destination. From their perspective, Alderaan was barely larger than a marble, floating against an endless backdrop of black ink and glittering stars. There was no movement to be seen—no pinpoints of light from starship engines, nothing coming or going from the planet. To those accustomed to Alderaan's bustling space traffic, it was a disturbing sight. The looming threat of war had choked off the flow of travel and commerce, leaving Alderaan hopelessly isolated.

"Reach out with the Force, Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon urged. "Feel, don't think. Can you sense it?"

Obi-Wan's eyelids fluttered as he concentrated on the planet in front of them, and the space around it. "There's something out there," he said worriedly. "Something we can't see."

Qui-Gon nodded, and the distant look flashed across his face again. "Revenge is a powerful motivator," he warned, "but they would not risk another war unless they feel they have the advantage. We must move quickly."

Obi-Wan nodded receptively. The pilot and captain looked at each other, but said nothing. They knew there was no turning back now. All they could do was get the ship to ground, and hope the Jedi accomplished their mission before it was too late.

Within minutes, the cruiser was descending through Alderaan's pristine atmosphere, making a beeline for the capital city of Aldera. The view from above was breathtaking. The city was built upon an island in the center of a sparkling freshwater lake. The lake was ringed by a circular mountain ridge, formed by an asteroid impact thousands of years earlier. The mountains provided a scenic view from any vantage point in the city, as well as a natural defensive barrier. Beyond the mountains, the landscape alternated between flat plains and rolling hills, all covered with long grass that rippled like a sea in the gentle wind. Obi-Wan's eyes were drawn to the horizon, where he could just barely make out another series of mountains. They had an unusual ovoid shape, like eggs pointed at the sky. Their outlines were far too smooth and symmetrical to have been formed by any natural process he'd ever heard of.

"Killik hives," Qui-Gon said helpfully, noticing Obi-Wan's perplexed stare. "Older than the Republic itself."

"What's in them?" Obi-Wan asked.

"They're empty," Qui-Gon replied. "The Killiks went extinct thousands of years ago. The Royal House has protected the hives as a natural wonder ever since."

Seconds later, the cruiser dropped below the peaks surrounding Aldera, and Obi-Wan's attention was drawn to another of the planet's wonders. Within the confines of the crater, enormous winged creatures drifted lazily through the air. The smaller specimens carried riders on their backs, while the larger ones had full-sized passenger cars secured to their undersides. These magnificent animals were thrantas, held aloft not by the slow movements of their wings, but by the spongy tissue filling their bodies. The tiny air sacs within that tissue were inflated with a buoyant gas, a byproduct from their diet of airborne zooplankton. Obi-Wan's eyes widened when he saw an impossibly large thranta drift over the furthest edge of the mountain range like a great white cloud. As it floated toward the city, it cast a shadow even larger than that of the cruiser—at least two hundred meters from one wingtip to the other. Obi-Wan shook his head in amazement. What a tragedy it would be, he thought, if this beautiful world went to war.

At last, the cruiser touched down on a landing pad of white duracrete, in the shadow of the Aldera Royal Palace. Tiny jets of inert gas hissed as the ship's boarding ramp lowered. Once the foot of the ramp hit solid ground, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon disembarked. Theirs was the only ship on the landing pad, and there was only one figure waiting to greet them: a protocol droid with a humanoid form and brass-colored body panels. The Jedi squinted their eyes, unaccustomed to the sunlight reflecting off of the freshly polished droid.

"Master Jedi," the droid greeted, "I am C-3PO, human-cyborg relations. On behalf of Her Royal Highness, Queen Breha, it is my pleasure to welcome you to Alderaan."

The Jedi Knights walked past the droid, making a beeline for the palace doors. The droid's gears whirred quietly as it turned to follow. With its shuffling gait, it could barely keep pace with the brisk strides of the Jedi.

"Might I ask your names, so I can make the proper introductions?" it asked.

"We're here to get the Royal Family to safety," Qui-Gon responded gruffly. "We don't have time for the proper introductions."

"Perhaps later," Obi-Wan added, reassuring the droid with a smile. He didn't think it would have any effect, but the droid's humanoid form and servile demeanor led him to treat it with sympathy. It was a clever design, really. Obi-Wan wondered how many diplomatic negotiations had been influenced by the protocol droid's benign appearance.

The walk from the landing pad to the Grand Hall of the palace was surprisingly brief. Most visitors to Alderaan would be led along one of the winding paths through the ceremonial gardens, in through the main doors, and then to one of the palace's many reception areas. Qui-Gon, however, displayed an uncanny familiarity with the palace's alternate entrances. He circumvented the gardens completely, and approached an unadorned side entrance guarded only by two security officers with antique rifles. They tensed and gripped their outdated weapons, eyeing the Jedi suspiciously as they approached. Before they could open their mouths to speak, they saw C-3PO struggling to catch up, and relaxed.

"Stand aside, stand aside!" the droid shouted, waving his hand frantically over his head. The palace doors slid open, and the trio entered. Qui-Gon found a maintenance turbolift that would bring them to the level of the Grand Hall, and they stepped aboard in silence. Obi-Wan wanted to ask Qui-Gon how he knew so much of the palace's layout, but he knew this was not the time. When the turbolift doors opened, Qui-Gon was predictably the first to step off.

"The Grand Hall will be..." C-3PO began, but it was clear Qui-Gon did not need directions. He spun on his heel, and marched left down the corridor with Obi-Wan in tow.

"...to your left," the droid finished, speaking only to the empty turbolift. He shook his head, and shuffled on behind them. As they moved, Obi-Wan turned his head from side to side in an effort to take in as much of the palace as he could. The corridor was lined with priceless sculptures and paintings. The high ceiling was supported by smooth marble columns at regular intervals, reminding him of an ancient cathedral. The doors, lights, and other fixtures were clearly modern, but designed in such a way that they complemented the older features of the building. The most impressive of these were the automatic doors leading to the Grand Hall. They were framed with brushed durasteel, but the panels set into them appeared to be made of rich, dark wood. The wooden panels were intricately carved with scenes from the proudest moments of Alderaan's history. In keeping with the planet's cultural objective of peace, there were none that depicted war or violence. Another pair of uniformed security officers stood beside the doors. These guards, at least, were armed with newer blaster rifles. They watched the Jedi and the droid approach, but did not react.

The doors to the Grand Hall slowly rumbled open, revealing an ornate chamber supported by two concentric rings of marble columns. Beyond the outer ring of columns, spotless floor-to-ceiling windows offered a stunning panoramic view of the lake and mountains beyond. At the center of the Grand Hall was a long conference table, with a throne at the far end. Both were carved from the same dark wood as the chamber doors. Normally, Queen Breha would be seated on that throne, but as the Jedi entered, she was standing, facing away from them. She was addressing a translucent blue hologram, emanating from a projector unit centered atop the conference table. The hologram was that of an elderly man in senatorial robes, with light, neatly groomed hair and a sympathetic twinkle in his eyes. Obi-Wan instantly recognized the man as Senator Palpatine. Flanking Queen Breha was her husband, Bail Organa, a uniformed security officer Obi-Wan did not recognize, and an attractive young woman with brown hair pulled back into a bun. Obi-Wan's gaze lingered on her as he instinctively studied her beautiful figure, but he quickly averted his eyes. Just in time, too, for she and the security officer glanced up at the Jedi as they approached.

"Ah," Palpatine said as the Jedi stepped into view, "I see Masters Jinn and Kenobi have arrived at last."

"And I'll tell them the same thing I told you, Marius," Breha replied sternly. She did not break eye contact with the hologram, or make any effort to greet her new arrivals. "I will not hide on Coruscant and leave my people to fend for themselves. Alderaan will resist—"

"And lose, I'm afraid," Palpatine interjected. "Forgive me for saying so, Your Highness, but Alderaan is in an indefensible position. If you were to be captured..." he allowed his voice to trail off, leaving everyone in the room to imagine the worst for themselves. Bail leaned toward his wife.

"He has a point, my love," he warned, his voice practically a whisper. "If Alderaan is attacked, we could rally other systems from Coruscant."

"We are a peaceful planet, Senator," Breha announced, addressing the hologram once more, "but we are not naive. We have more weapons in our vaults than a dozen other systems, and our security forces are prepared to use them."

"Your Highness," Qui-Gon stepped forward. "No one doubts the courage of your men, or your ability to lead them. We only ask that you come with us to the safest possible position, at the heart of the Republic."

Breha glared at him, then turned to the young woman beside her. "Secretary Naberrie?" The woman stepped forward, and Breha promptly continued. "How long can Aldera hold out in the event of an attack?"

"With rationing, we can supply the population for at least a year," Naberrie replied. Her voice was firm but pleasant, befitting her years of government experience. "Our shield generator was inspected by Chief Ulgo this morning. He reported no issues."

Breha nodded with satisfaction, and addressed Qui-Gon once more. "This is the safest possible position, Master Jedi. I will be staying here with my people, come hell or high water."

"Your Hi—" Palpatine's hologram flickered. "Go wit—Jed—" Everyone in the room turned toward the image, only to see an unrecognizable mess of wavy blue lines. Within seconds, the hologram was gone. Obi-Wan took a short step toward Qui-Gon.

"I have a bad feeling about this," he said quietly. Qui-Gon said nothing in reply, but Obi-Wan could see that he was on edge. Both of them could feel a disturbance in the Force, like a wave of nausea, telling them that danger was rapidly approaching. Obi-Wan wanted to obey his primal instincts and run, but his sense of duty was more powerful. He knew he was surrounded by people he could not abandon. Before he could speak again, the deafening sound of an explosion erupted outside the palace. The floor shuddered beneath his feet, and the hanging light fixtures swung violently. The physical effects reminded him of an earthquake, but the sound was unlike anything he'd ever heard before: a grating metallic boom, like a droid malfunctioning into an amplifier. Qui-Gon and Bail rushed to the window as the other occupants of the room grabbed hold of the table to steady themselves. The once-beautiful view outside had been transformed into something out of a nightmare. A kilometer-wide cloud of dust was rising from the mountains beyond the lake. Slabs of rock were sliding down the face of the mountain and crashing into the water. With them came twisted pieces of red-hot metal, each weighing several hundred tons.

"That was our shield generator," Bail gasped, the color draining from his face. He whirled around and pointed at the security officer, who was bracing himself against the Queen's desk with one hand. "Captain Rieekan, get me a status update from every province, now!" he ordered.

Bail's subordinate reached for a communication panel mounted along the edge of the table, but before he could activate it, there was another explosion from outside. This one was much closer, sending violent tremors through the entire palace. Obi-Wan winced at the ear-piercing noise. When he looked up again, the Grand Hall was much darker than before. The artificial lights had gone out, and a cloud of dust and debris had blown up against the cracked windows, obscuring the sun.

"Viceroy, we're without power!" Rieekan shouted. Bail grimaced angrily, and looked back out the window. The sun was beginning to peek through again as the wind carried the dust away. The muffled roar of panicked crowds could be heard from the streets. A fresh crater had appeared on the shore of the island, where the power generator for the city of Aldera once stood. An unforgiving wall of lake water poured into the crater, submerging any hope of a coordinated defense.

"Seismic charges," Qui-Gon murmured. The emotion was gone from his voice. He knew there was only one path ahead, and it was going to be bloody. He noticed his hands were trembling with the onset of adrenaline, and hooked his thumbs into his belt to steady them. With the little finger of his right hand, he gently brushed against the hilt of his lightsaber. It comforted him to have a physical reminder that it was still there. His gaze was fixed on the sky, where a cloud of tiny black dots had appeared. For now, they were too far away to see clearly, but his intuition told him they were landing ships, descending on Alderaan like a swarm of locusts.

"No communications. No shields. No power," Bail growled angrily. "You know what this is."

Qui-Gon nodded, and answered with a single word.

"Invasion."